The Case for “Robot Umpires”

This morning, my friend and colleague Cory Fallon wrote here at Baseball Essential an opinion piece entitled, “Robotic umps will be the death of baseball.” While I respect my young friend’s flair for the dramatic, I certainly see things much differently.

Cory is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about baseball. He has a great appreciation and respect for baseball and its history. In fact, I referred to him as “my young friend” only to highlight the slight transposition of roles: 19-year-old Cory is taking the baseball purist route, while I, at twice his age, believe that allowing balls and strikes to be called by an automated, computerized system would be a wonderful thing.

Cory makes two main arguments against this practice. First, there is the fear of malfunction:

What if the technology fails during the game? Let’s say that the computer or software breaks during the game and cannot be used anymore, then what? You can’t finish a game. Also, what if someone is able to hack the technology and make calls from the stands? Not only would teams probably hire techs to hack the software to alter it in their favor, but a decent hacker could easily break into the system and call the game themselves. This would be horrible for baseball.

Yes, it is possible that the system could go down. It is also possible for lights to go out at a night game. When that happens, they delay the game, get the lights back on, and continue the game; why would the process be any different for the strikezone computer system? (For that matter, MLB has implemented this technology already, so when — not if — this gets implemented, they will have years of data showing just how likely it is for a malfunction to occur.)

Is it possible for the system to be hacked? Sure, although it would definitely have to be more than a “decent hacker” behind the attack. But it is extremely easy to mitigate such an attack. For example, literally just off the top of my head right now, I can think of a system where they have two or three redundant systems doing the exact same thing, and any time they don’t match it throws a big warning. So any hypothetical hack would have to be applied simultaneously and identically to all three systems. Or 50 systems, if you want even more security. (That redundancy also addresses the malfunction issue.)

Simply put, the vast majority of concerns that people get in their heads when they hear the word “robot” are overblown, and that is definitely the case here.

Cory’s second argument is that robot umps would “take the human element out of the game, and turn the game itself robotic.” Ah, the old human element argument. I am a huge fan of the human element in the game of baseball. I love seeing pitchers and hitters battle and try to outsmart each other and see if one guy’s best can beat the other guy’s best. I love seeing an outfielder dive for a ball and make an outstanding catch, or almost make an outstanding catch and then second-guess his decision to dive when the ball gets past him at the cost of an extra base. There are thousands of human elements I love about baseball — but not a single one of them has to do with the umpires, and not a single one of them would be eliminated by eliminating bad ball/strike calls from the game.

Cory wrote:

For the people saying that these robotic umps will make the right call all the time, then why don’t we just throw robotic players out there? Turn the players into robots so everything is perfect, and there are no more errors, or stuff like that. Doesn’t that just sound ridiculous? Now you know how crazy these robot umps sound to me, and thousands of fans like me.

That is the crux of my disagreement with Cory. Umpires are not a part of the game; they are merely arbiters and enforcers of the rules. I don’t think the game would be worse if every umpire suddenly became perfect at his job. On the contrary, it would make the game a pure battle of one team’s humans against the other team’s humans, which is the human element at its finest.

The NBA does not have a referee whose job it is to count to 24-Mississippi and blow a whistle for a shot-clock violation. Tennis learned long ago that a perfect computer was much better at calling balls in or out than a judge on a chair. The only reason balls and strikes are called by a human umpire with a partially obstructed view is because there was not a better option when the rules were created. Very soon, there will be a much better option available, and Major League Baseball should enthusiastically embrace it.

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